Khan al-Ahmar is a cluster of Bedouin structures located in the Judean Desert to the east of Jerusalem. This past year this subject has been heating up. It is located on public land and is situated on the main route connecting Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley. Twenty-eight Bedouin families live there. It is too small to really be called a village, so some label it as a hamlet or even other terms. The structures in Khan al-Ahmar were not erected with any sort of building permit, as required by Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank.
Accordingly, demolition orders were issued in 2009. Though the residents turned to the Israeli Supreme Court, in its ruling the Court stated: “there is no dispute that the entire complex was put up in violation of the zoning laws.” In the past the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Jewish families living in illegally constructed dwellings needed to be removed, as was the case in Migron (2012), Amona (2017), and Netiv Ha-Avot (2018).
Some Western commentators have fundamentally misunderstood Israel’s decision to dismantle Khan al-Ahmar. A New York Times analysis insisted that Israel sought “to make room for the expansion of Jewish settlements.” Of course, anyone familiar with the topography of the West Bank, with the map of the West Bank, knows that the Judean Desert is full of empty territory, so that the argument that the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar was required for settlement expansion really rings hollow.
Even more important, anyone with a basic understanding of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy should know that Israel’s removal of Khan al-Ahmar is based on Israel’s rights as guaranteed by the Oslo Agreements, especially the 1995 Interim Accord that has governed land use since that time. Let’s recall that the Interim Agreement divided the West Bank into three zones: Area A, where the Palestinians had full civilian and military authority; Area B, where the Palestinians had full civilian authority and partial security authority; and Area C, where Israel retained both security and civilian authority, including the power to decide matters relating to zoning and planning.
There were good reasons why Israel retained powers in Area C. It contains facilities directly connected to Israeli security. Besides military bases and early warning stations, Area C includes vital transportation arteries. Route 1 that runs from Jerusalem down the steep hill ridge to the Jordan Valley is the highway that will be employed by the Israeli Army to move forces to the front lines in the event of an assault from the east. The threat does not come from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with whom Israel is at peace. Historically, Israel has been more concerned with hostile neighbors that would use Jordanian territory as a springboard for attack. In the past, the primary concern was a possible Iraqi invasion under Saddam Hussein. Today, an unstable Iraq remains a real concern, especially if Iran uses Shiite militias against Israel as it has in Syria, or if these militias bring reinforcements to the Palestinians in the event of escalation, like a new Intifada.
The battle over transportation arteries has already transpired in the past. During the second intifada between 2000 and 2006, Palestinian snipers opened fire on Israeli vehicles along key roadways like Route 443, Route 60, and other highways. The point that is missed in all the commentary on Khan al-Ahmar is the fact that it is adjacent to a pivotal transportation artery and hence has enormous strategic importance for Israel. In fact, the school at Khan al-Akhmar is just 20 meters from the Route 1 highway.
Thus, Israel has a strong case for insisting that the illegal structures at Khan al-Ahmar be removed from such a sensitive location as long as an alternative site is chosen for its residents. The Israeli Civil Administration has proposed moving the residents of Khan al-Ahmar to a site in West Jahlin, which is a mere 8 kilometers away from the current site.
One of the distressing aspects of the struggle over Khan al-Ahmar is the fact that the reservations about Israeli actions are coming from international organizations and countries who are supposed to know the legal background of this case. The 1995 Interim Agreement was not only signed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the State of Israel and by Yasser Arafat for the PLO. It was signed as well by the European Union, Norway, the Russia Federation, and U.S., Egypt and Jordan, who all served as witnesses.
So here is the key question. How can EU institutions, like the European Parliament, or the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, condone illegal construction that violates an international agreement to which the EU is a signatory? These actions undermine the very credibility of the European Union and its institutions, and their status as an honest broker in any future Middle-East peace process.